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Codex Secretary Tom Heilandt looks back on 2020


As 2020 drew to a close we asked Codex Secretary Tom Heilandt to look back on the year and these are his thoughts.

What has been different about 2020?

Just about everything! Travel went down from maybe 50 to three times.  Physical meetings, both Codex meetings and others were “virtually” non-existent. The last time, I met Codex members was at CCEXEC78 back in February, and our last physical Codex team meeting was at the beginning of March. So, everything was different, but we still worked and made a lot of progress. And that's the amazing thing.

What have been the highlights or things you could not possibly have imagined?

For me that was clearly the Commission. It was fantastic that we pulled that off by Zoom and got all standards adopted. We had almost a thousand participants, over 130 countries. It was really touching to see how committed all delegates were, and at the end of the meeting when everybody unmuted themselves and said “bye bye” - it was a great atmosphere, even though it was virtual.  

Is there anything that could have been done differently?

Well, sometimes I consider we could have started with holding technical meetings virtually earlier, but then again, I think maybe we were not ready for that. So, I have a small doubt that some meetings could have been held in a virtual way if we had been more daring but we tried to first educate ourselves and delegates to get all of us comfortable with the Zoom medium and then start with the Executive Committee, which is a small meeting. And then straightaway we did the Commission, and so we proved now that it's possible and will continue that way in 2021 and as long as needed.

What was it like working online?

Time is somehow more limited, so you do need to prepare quite in detail and create a script, even if usually you like to improvise like I do. In a virtual meeting you need to read the script and more or less adhere to it. And not talk too much. That's all. I could do that better but I got great support from the team in Rome and I was lucky that for most sessions I was able to sit together in the same room with Guilherme our Chairperson. That did make a difference.

Do you see a future for hybrid meetings?

I think there will definitively be a future for that but it should be a choice and I am not sure we have the technology quite ready yet. The first thing we will work at in the Secretariat is trying to bring at least the head-table together like I did with Guilherme for CAC but there are technological challenges in that also. As for hybrid participants, if the choice is not to be able to participate at all (for whatever reason) or to participate in a hybrid way, I think that's still better than not being there. However, I think we’re clear that as a virtual participant one is excluded from some important side meetings and networking that may happen in the breaks or after the meeting. So “hybrid” participants are in some ways “second class” participants and we would want to avoid that delegations are forced into this by their own financial departments considering that they could participate “virtually” and save funds. But there could be a prioritization process in countries and for us the task will be to prepare the technology for hybrid participation so that we are ready when it will be requested and make it as efficient as possible.

How do you how do you think Codex has stood up to the test of Covid-19?

We kept going, that was the important thing, even though we did not hold any technical committee meetings, we kept all the electronic working groups running. They continued the work and when we hold formal meetings next year, there will be a lot more for those meetings to discuss, which will be a challenge, but it will be good. So, we didn’t lose a whole year.

We saw too that a text such as the General Principles of Food Hygiene has proved to be one of our most important texts ever because a lot of people are now focusing on hygiene which is good and should be maintained – pandemic or not. Also, Codex standards regarding import and export certification, that make sure food actually gets to different places. There will be changes coming out of the Covid situation which then need to be standardized and become general guidance for everyone.

And looking ahead to 2021?

I hope that we're going to have a physical session of the Commission, which is planned for November. But we have no idea what November will look like for people and if they will be able to travel.

I know that we will fulfil our whole work programme. All committees that are planned will be held. Until the summer we go virtually, so that is a lot of firsts for these committees. And after that, well I cannot predict.

I ask the whole Codex community to please stay as supportive in 2021 as you have been in 2020. Continue to keep up the good work so that we can have all our committees and the Commission at the end of the year and if that will be physical then have a real celebration.


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